Monday, July 21, 2014

My First Time: Robin Black

Photo by Nina Subin
My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands.  Today’s guest is Robin Black, author of Life Drawing.  Robin's debut novel is an Indie Next pick for August 2014, on the long list for the Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize, and has been called “a magnificent literary achievement” by Karen Russell.  Her story collection, If I loved you, I would tell you this, was a finalist for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Prize.  Her stories and essays can be found at, The Rumpus, O Magazine, The Chicago Tribune, One Story, and Five Chapters, among many other publications.  More about Robin and her work can be found at  She lives with her family in Philadelphia.

My First Cringe-Worthy Agent Query

These days, since becoming a published author, I’m often asked for advice about querying agents, and I’m always torn about what to say.  There’s a part of me that believes in playing such things safe, in following the rules, and not raising any “cuckoo-bird” flags.  So with that in mind, I feel I should refer people to the many websites about the “proper” way to query, websites where they will find advice about being succinct; about crafting catchy, brief summaries of their work; about trying to sound appealing, exhibiting some personality but still striking a professional tone.

All of which is probably excellent advice, and none of which is what I did–of course.  Hence my dilemma.

In the summer of 2007, a couple of years post-MFA, with a passel of published stories to my name I decided I “needed” an agent.  For the record, if anyone with that resume were now to ask me for advice, I would say: Don’t bother querying agents until you have a book.  Write first, and stay out of the business side as long as possible.  But like many “emerging writers” and perhaps especially those in their mid-forties and beyond, I was in a hurry.  I wanted legitimacy.  I wanted to be able to say, “Yes!” when people asked me: “Do you have an agent?” one of the gauntlet inquiries people mistakenly use to measure a writer’s worth.

Nothing came of those queries in 2007, which were pretty much “by the book,” following the rules I found online.  Nothing came of them, including the one I cared most about, to a man named Henry Dunow.  He was the agent I was fixated on, absolutely convinced was the one for me–for no better reason than that someone had once told me he might be a good match for my work.  In passing, at a conference.  Probably while drunk.  And never having read my work.  “You should work with Henry Dunow.  He’s into your kind of stuff.  Hic.”

I was unimaginably impressionable back then.  A drunk dude told me that Henry Dunow was the agent for me, and it became an idee fixe.

But he didn’t answer my email.  Fair enough.  He wasn’t the only one.  As I said, nothing came of the whole enterprise, and I went back to work.

Flash forward a year and through a series of incidents, some involving publishing a story in One Story, others involving the kindness of an ”insider” who decided to help me, and suddenly I had a small collection of agents courting me–in part because I had managed to produce a novel draft, which I was careful to mention two times for every time I mentioned my short stories.  A couple of the agents seemed like real possibilities, but an idee fixe is an idee fixe, and I decided that before I signed with anyone else, I would give Henry Dunow one more try.

But something had changed in a year.  Maybe because my by-the-book emails had all failed, maybe because I had just grown weary of trying to play the game by the rules, my tone had definitely, shall we say, evolved.

Here, in part, is the email I sent:
      This is where I fess up that I wrote you last summer. Since I didn't hear back, I'm assuming that's because you decided against me, but I'm hoping it's because the email never reached you. I am trying again--for the last time, I promise--because your blurb on the agency's website says you like literary fiction and voice-driven nonfiction, and that is what I write. Since the One Story piece came out, I have had some interest from agents, and it looks like the right time for me to figure this representation thing out, so I thought I would try one more time.
      I apologize if this second query letter qualifies as bugging you. As I say, I won't send another should this one also go unanswered. My bio is pasted below. I am happy to give you any more information, including a description of the novel, should you want it.
Professional tone?  Not hardly.  Catchy summary of my work?  Definitely not.  Strange hint that I might have stalking tendencies?  Yeah, I can see that there.

The miracle is that he wrote back.  Not only did he write back, but he asked if he could take a look at my novel, a reasonable enough request, given that I had told him it was complete.

My answer:
      Thanks so much for the response! I appreciate that, and your willingness to look at my work.
      Unfortunately, as far as you seeing the novel goes, the short answer is No. Though fully drafted, I don't think the novel is showable--not without doing myself a disservice and wasting your time.
(This move, the dangling of a novel followed by its hasty withdrawal, is not commonly advised.)

My email continues:
It's a good thing I am a better writer than businesswoman. I had actually decided to put off querying until those revisions were complete, but my situation is that a couple of weeks ago this story of mine came out in One Story and all of a sudden there were agents offering to sign me up, which was initially incredibly exciting. Now though, after a certain amount of soul searching, I'm coming to the view that flattering and tempting as it all is, I don't just want to sign with an agent, I want to sign with the right agent. I understand that may mean someone for whom the novel is the determining factor, therefore a wait.
I am 100% certain that nowhere in the literature on How To Query An Agent does anyone suggest that you discuss your “soul searching.”

There’s more:
I so appreciate your response. My now revised query is whether I could show you this novel once that too is revised? Or is there anything else that would be relevant? Do stories help? I have lots and lots of those, some published, some (too many) that I have never sent out. I am attaching the story that appeared in One Story, just so if you are interested in seeing a sample of my work, there it is. And of course, anything that might be useful can be mailed in the genuine mail if that's better. Also, below is a description of the novel. The only person in the industry who has ever heard anything about it told me that you were the right agent, because of your experience and skill selling literary work. That doesn't mean you would agree, of course, but it had an impact on me...
And yes, in case you are wondering as you read, I am still cringing.  And I’m not even going to share the next email I sent in which I apologize for the previous two and for being such a complete idiot and so on...

But of course this wouldn’t be a story, not one for here, if it didn’t have a happy ending.  Henry didn’t run screaming or change his email address or mark my missives spam.  He just wrote back, “Okay.  I’ll take a look at the story and get back to you,” which I assumed meant he was being polite about trying to get rid of me, but in fact resulted in an email a couple of days later inviting me to give him a call so we could speak.  And the rest is history.  Not world history, but the part of my history that includes having an amazing agent and friend.

That happy ending isn’t really the point here, though.  I realize now, as I write, that the important part of this story isn’t that Henry offered to work with me once he’d read my work, it’s that he read that work in spite of the loopy and decidedly unprofessional tone of my correspondence, in spite of my having broken every rule in the book.  Because of course, the most pressing point of a query letter isn’t that it result in being signed; it’s that it result in being read.

So what advice am I to give?

I had a chance to go to the expert and ask Henry himself why he bothered to download that story and take a look.

“I remember being charmed,” he said.  “You sounded like a real person.”

“A real nut,” I said; but he only shrugged.

And what I saw then, what I understood, is that my story wasn’t as fluky as I have always believed.  Agents aren’t all looking for one thing.  There are agents out there–and I’m not saying it’s all–who aren’t, first and foremost, looking for authors who can mimic a professional tone and sound like business-people, but who may be looking for that ever elusive quality: voice.  And who don’t necessarily expect writers to sound 100% balanced all the time–or ever.  And who are quite possibly bored to death by the dozens of “by the book” queries they receive every month.

So my tendency these days is to tell people, when it comes to query letters, to be themselves.  Let a process of natural selection work itself out.  Being myself, neurotic, tentative, and entirely unprofessional, got me the agent who was right for me.  One who doesn’t mind a little craziness along the way.  One who maybe even welcomes that.  I am certain there are agents who would have deleted that first email I sent, barely read.  And that would have been a very good thing for us both.